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Midcentury Modern Furniture Design

The period between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the 1960s brought a period of optimism and prosperity to America. John F. Kennedy becomes president, a man flies into space and it seemed like a time when anything was possible. Gio Ponti and Carlo di Carli have added sensuality to furniture not seen since the height of Art Nouveau. Planned obsolescence seemed like a good idea and disposable decor was the craze. Joe Colombo built a chair with polyurethane foam covered cylinders that could be dismantled and placed in a duffel bag. Wendell Castle has created a molded white plastic chair that looks like a sand castle with only a depression in the center to sit on.

The new plastic has allowed the furniture to model itself in every imaginable and unimaginable shape. Places like Superstudio and Archizoom have reacted to excess making what they called Anti-design … furniture both uncomfortable to use and ugly to look at.

But for most designers, form followed function and expanded on the bare aspect of modernists. To the Japanese influence of simple structures, they added bold colors, elastic fabrics and molded plywood. The use of furniture design influenced by widely versatile aluminum. Just as leisure has become a more important part of American culture, so designers have started creating chairs designed for students. Informality reigned and the lines stretched and moved into organic forms made available only by new materials.

Like the key work of Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson of the furniture company Herman Miller took off with a style that demanded “durability, unity, integrity and inevitability”. America, because it could recover so quickly from the devastation of the Second World War, has led the way.

Likewise, the Scandinavian countries were much less affected by the war and therefore were able to start production much faster than in the rest of Europe. Hans Wegner designed his model No. JH 501 chair which became so popular that it was simply called The Chair. House Beautiful has declared it the most beautiful chair in the world. It was the chair used to sit in the television debate between JFK and Richard Nixon.

One of the most interesting aspects of Scandinavian furniture was the use of teak. Originating in the Pacific countries, large military exercises have cleaned up huge sections of forest in Thailand and the Philippines and so teak has become abundant and cheap. Finn Juhl was a master at transforming teak into free-form furniture.

Other trendy items were the drop chair by Arne Jacobsen, with the shell in polyurethane foam covered in leather and on tubular legs covered in copper. His 3107 chair was so popular that by the end of the 20th century, 6 million of them had sold.

One of the strangest pieces of the time was the UP5 chair by Gaetano Pesce. It was made of high density polyurethane foam and covered in stretch nylon. It was then placed in a vacuum chamber and reduced to 10 percent of its original size and packed between two heat-sealed plastic sheets. When you brought it home and opened the bag, the air would return and the chair would regain its size and shape.


by Ken Adney

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